For 48 hours, soccer stood on the brink. Fans took to the streets. Players broke into open revolt. Chaos stalked the game’s corridors of power, unleashing a shock wave that resonated around the world, from Manchester to Manila, Barcelona to Beijing and Liverpool to Los Angeles.
That internationalism is what has turned European soccer, over the past 30 years, into a global obsession. The elite teams of Western Europe are stocked with stars drawn from Africa, South America and all points in between. They draw fans not just from England, Italy and Spain, but China, India and Australia – in numbers large enough to tempt broadcasters across the planet to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to show their games.
But while soccer is now the biggest business in sports, it remains, at heart, an intensely local affair. Teams rooted in neighbourhoods and based in small towns compete in domestic leagues that have existed for more than a century, competitions in which the great and the good share the field – and at least some of the finances – with the minor and the makeweight.
An uneasy truce between the two faces of the world’s game had held for decades. And then, on Sunday night, it cracked as an unlikely alliance of U.S. hedge funds, Russian oligarchs, European industrial tycoons and Gulf royals sought to seize control of the revenues of the world’s most popular sport by creating a closed European super league.
How that plan came together and then spectacularly collapsed is a story of egos and intrigue, avarice and ambition, secret meetings and private lunches, international finance and internecine strife. It lasted just two frantic, feverish days, but that was more than enough time to shake the world.
Last Thursday, Javier Tebas and Joan Laporta were supposed to be having a cordial, celebratory lunch. A few days earlier, Laporta had been elected to a second term as president of FC Barcelona. Tebas, the outspoken, unashamedly bellicose executive in charge of Spain’s national league, wanted to be among the first to congratulate him on his victory.
It did not turn out that way. Laporta revealed to Tebas that Barcelona was almost certainly joining a dozen or so of Europe’s most famous, most successful teams in a breakaway competition, one that would effectively unmoor its members from the game’s traditional structures and, crucially, its multibillion-dollar economy.
The threat was nothing new. But Tebas felt this new effort was more serious, more real. Laporta told him that a half-dozen teams had already committed. Several more had been told that they had until the end of the weekend to decide.
Tebas raised the alarm. He called officials in leagues across Europe. He called executives of powerful clubs. And he reached out to Aleksander Ceferin, president of European soccer’s governing body, the organization that Tebas knew had the most to lose.
Ceferin, a lean, plainspoken 53-year-old lawyer from Slovenia, was baffled. Only a few weeks earlier, his close friend and ally Andrea Agnelli, president of Italian league champion Juventus, the scion of one of Europe’s great industrial families and the leader of the association representing European soccer clubs, had assured him that whispers about a new round of breakaway talks were only “a rumour.”
Just a day earlier, in fact, Agnelli and his organization had recommitted to a suite of reforms to the Champions League, European soccer’s crown jewel and its biggest moneymaker. Everything was set to be approved at a meeting in Montreux, Switzerland, on Monday.
Ceferin – the godfather to Agnelli’s youngest child – texted the Italian’s wife and asked if she might get the Juventus president to call him urgently. He was three hours into his journey when his cellphone rang. Breezily, Agnelli reassured Ceferin, again, that everything was fine.
Hours passed. The men traded more calls. Eventually, the Italian told Ceferin he needed another 30 minutes.
And then Agnelli turned off his phone.
The reason that the threat of a super league had carried so much menace for so long is that much of soccer’s vast economy rests on a fragile bond.
Both domestic championships – like England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga – and Pan-continental tournaments such as the Champions League to some extent rely on the presence of the elite clubs to attract fans and, through them, broadcasters and sponsors. Without them, the revenue streams that filter down to and sustain smaller teams might collapse.
For decades, the system rested on appeasing the rich teams just enough to encourage them to retain their loyalty to the collective. All of a sudden, that trust was fraying.
With his inner circle, Ceferin got to work. They broke the news to some board members of the European Club Association, the umbrella group of about 250 European teams: Agnelli and senior executives like Manchester United’s Ed Woodward had misled them about supporting the Champions League reform plan, they said.
They told the clubs that, even though the breakaway clubs intended to remain in their own domestic leagues, too, the plan would see the value of those competitions’ broadcast deals collapse. Sponsorships would evaporate. It would decimate the rest of soccer’s finances. “They were outraged. They couldn’t believe it,” Ceferin said in an interview Wednesday. “Even mafia organizations have some sort of code.”
By lunchtime Sunday, the roster of the insurgents was known. Ceferin started referring to them as the Dirty Dozen. As well as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid had signed up from Spain. There were six from England: Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. In Italy, Juventus had been joined by A.C. Milan and Inter Milan.
Before the clubs could announce their plans, the news leaked. The public outcry, particularly in Britain, was immediate. Fans hung banners outside their teams’ stadiums, and lawmakers took to the airwaves to denounce the rebels for their greed and disrespect toward soccer’s traditions.
This was precisely what some of those involved with the project had feared. There had been doubts that the plan was ready to go live; insiders worried that it might not survive a fierce initial backlash. “This is not the time to do it,” an executive involved in the project warned. The executive suggested holding off until summer.
Those concerns were not heeded. Agnelli, theoretically a voice for all of Europe’s clubs in his governance roles and a close friend of Ceferin, was feeling the strain of being, in effect, a double agent. He had protected the rebels’ secret for weeks, shading the truth – or worse – in talks with friends and allies.
Agnelli knew the league was happening. With the signatures of Chelsea, Manchester City and Atletico Madrid in hand, the founding members were set. The financing, delivered by Spanish advisory firm Key Capital Partners and backed by U.S. bank JPMorgan Chase, would mean billions in new riches.
By first light the next day, the battle lines had been drawn. And it was quickly clear that the breakaway 12 had next to no support.
Ceferin, stern-faced, excoriated the breakaway group in his first comments to reporters. He reserved specific vitriol for Manchester United’s Woodward, who he felt had misled him, and for Agnelli. Ceferin called the men “snakes” and “liars” and described how they had led him to believe he had their full support for the Champions League revisions.
By then, the acrimony was spreading across the European soccer landscape. The Premier League held a meeting without its six rebel teams, and the remaining 14 clubs discussed what punitive measures to take against those who had signed up for the Super League.
English teams, notably Liverpool and Chelsea, had other reasons to be concerned. Their fans were already gathering outside the stadiums from which they had been barred by the pandemic, hanging banners denouncing the Super League on walls and entry gates.
Players, too, were starting to make their views known. Manchester United’s squad had demanded a meeting with Woodward to express not only their fury at being forced to find out about the plan through the news media but also their disapproval of the idea itself. Several other high-profile stars, playing for teams not involved in the breakaway, posted messages disavowing the plan on social media.
As Ceferin prepared to deliver his keynote address Tuesday morning in Montreux, reports began to emerge that several teams – Chelsea and Manchester City among them – were considering dropping out. Television networks and sponsors had come out against the breakaway plan, and the British government was threatening official action to block it.
In his address, Ceferin talked about greed and selfishness as well as about soccer’s importance in the fabric of European culture and in the lives of the millions who follow the game across the continent. He then made his direct pitch to the English clubs.
“Gentlemen, you made a huge mistake,” he told them, staring directly into the cameras. “Some will say it is greed; others disdain, arrogance, flippancy or complete ignorance of England’s football culture. It does not matter.
“What does matter is that there is still time to change your mind. Everyone makes mistakes.”
Within hours, the project’s demise started to snowball. More and more players came out against the idea. Marcus Rashford, Manchester United’s homegrown striker, posted an image on Twitter that read, “Football Is Nothing Without Fans.”
Liverpool’s entire squad released a simultaneous message disavowing the project.
As evening drew near, hundreds of fans gathered outside Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s home stadium, to protest the plan before the team’s game with Brighton. Inside, team officials leaked the news that Chelsea was exploring ways to exit its Super League contract.
The Super League, having lost half its members and its entire foothold in England, was finished. Inter Milan dropped out a few hours later, and then, as the clock ticked to the 48-hour mark since its grand announcement, the Super League released an unsigned statement acknowledging that the plan was no longer viable.
By then, Ceferin was back in Slovenia, having completed the eight-hour return trip from Montreux. He stayed up until about 2 a.m. digesting the news. He released a statement welcoming back the English teams into the European fold. He started to respond to the thousands of messages that had swamped his phone over the previous two days.
Then he closed his laptop and helped himself to a double whisky.